Sourav: India's `left' best in Australia

Sourav Ganguly belongs to a rare breed of Indian left-handers. His breeding was manifest in the aura he brought to orchestrating that 144 in the Brisbane Test.

RAJU BHARATAN

MEMORY is the name of the Brisbane lane down which I travel to flesh out Sourav Ganguly's 144 as one of the finest Test innings played by an Indian in Australia. Beyond the shadow of a doubt the best by a left-hander, representing India in Australia, over the last 55 years. Just switch on your mindset and reflect. On your mental screen, in sum and substance, have you, in orbit, a better-crafted Test innings — by a left-hander from India touring Australia — than Sourav's `Gregarious' 144? "It's all his own work in the end," conceded Greg Chappell, magnanimously, on Star Sports. After having tellingly identified Sourav's long-term hand-eye-foot coordination problem as one merely "between the ears".

Sourav Ganguly... his Brisbane 144 among the finest, in Tests, by an Indian in Australia. — Pic. AFP-

Even here, Greg Chappell was different. In not sounding clich�d by dismissing Sourav's dilemma as being "all in the mind". That 144 did tele-come through as a Test innings without Indian left-handed parallel Down Under. Seeing how India (in response to Australia's 323) was, as Sourav stepped in, reeling at 62 for 3. After that "rough decision" against Sachin (0) by Steve Bucknor. When a decision-maker of such a calibre so visibly errs, it suggests `the height' of poor umpiring. The cynical conclusion, in the concatenation of circumstances, was that it just did not look destined to be India's Brisbane day.

All the more so as Sourav was just settling down to productive strokeplay when Akash Chopra (36) had Jason Gillespie tellingly exploiting the one slippery chink in his armour as an opener. That V.V.S. Laxman found his rhythm straightway is a measure of how a performer batting well, at one end, magically transmits his sense of assurance to his partner at the other. The aptitude and attitude Laxman brought to the form and content of batsmanship saw VVS help Sourav and his India launch a Test series, in a fightback mould, for the first time, in Australia, since 1947-48. (Against an Australia at full strength, I mean.) At Brisbane, Sourav was in such willowy touch, by the time Laxman joined wristy issue, that VVS, too, began playing his own natural game.

A game that had, so Sachinoticeably, 99-won back, for VVS, his one-day special spot in the Indian team. Where Laxman (75 off 114 balls: 11 fours) was now all virtuosity, Sourav was all audacity (in sailing to 144 off 196 balls: 18 fours). The Sourav-Laxman 146 runs' stand (for the all-determinant 5th wicket) had, for once, Steve Waugh scratching his baggy green-capped head. That India finished 39 runs ahead of Australia's 323 (by the end of the Brisbane fourth day) was a rueful reminder. Of the 39 runs by which the Junior Nawab of Pataudi's India had surrendered the January 1968 Brisbane Test. To yield, prematurely, the series (0-3) to Bill Lawry's Australia.

Thus, not just during the 1999-2000 tour of Australia, but also in the 1967-68 series Down Under, India was seen to go into the final Test, at Sydney, all set to draw a blank. Now, in 2003-04, hopefully we sustained the rich vein, struck at Brisbane, in the Adelaide Test just over. So that we move from Melbourne to Sydney in a combative frame of mind rare for Touring India. Having put Australia, if but momentarily, on the Brisbane back-foot. The series opener proved (for all our hiccups on the last day) that, even in Test cricket, Australia is no longer all that invincible. To Sourav, personally, goes the credit for having got launched, into a Test series, on more level terms than those managed by any Indian captain, through 7 tours before him, Down Under. Having pinpointed Sourav's 144 as the Test best by a left-hander in Australia, I feel chagrined to discover that he has had no real Down Under Indian challenger to meet in this specialist direction!

Indeed we have to turn to Ajit Wadekar's 99 — in the second stanza of the January 1968 Melbourne Test — to find something somewhat matching Sourav's left-handed 144 now. Wadekar's 99 then was, no doubt, a fluid left-handed effort in its nascent stages. Yet Wadekar was observed to be `in the throes' as the third day's play came to an end with Ajit in the jittery 90's. That Sourav-style left-hander — viewed as "potentially among India's best" in Tiger's Tale by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi — was all nerves the following Melbourne morning. Looking crestfallen when 99 — caught tamely tapping the ball to Paul Sheahan off Bob Simpson!

Strokefully as Ajit Wadekar got going that Melbourne Test time, his 99 (chancy at times) must rate behind Sourav's Brisbane Test 144. Remember, Tiger Pataudi's India then was out of the match long before Ajit Wadekar failed to reach his maiden hundred in Tests. By contrast, Sourav's 144 now brought India rousingly back into Brisbane Test match reckoning. Ajit Wadekar's series scores in four matches (during 1967-68) were: 28 & 0 in the Adelaide Test; 6 & 99 in the Melbourne Test; 1 & 11 in the Brisbane Test; 49 & 18 in the Sydney Test. Against an Aussie pace attack made up of Graham McKenzie, Dave Renneberg and Alan Connolly. Compare that with Sourav's left-handed showing during the three Ansett contests in 1999-2000 Down Under — 60 & 43 in the Adelaide Test; 31 & 17 in the Melbourne Test; 1 & 25 in the Sydney Test. Against Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, Damien Fleming and Michael Kasprowicz.

In the same 1999-2000 series, another left-hander, opener Sadagoppan Ramesh, had (in the first two Tests he played) scores of 2 (run out) & 28 at Adelaide; 4 & 26 at Melbourne. By the same token, during the 1967-68 series in Australia, another Indian left-hander, Bapu Nadkarni (turning out for India in but three games of the four-match series), had contributions of 3 & 15 in the Adelaide Test; 17 & 2 in the Brisbane Test; 0 & 6 in the Sydney Test.

Thus anything Sourav now goes on to accomplish, as India's ace left-hander, would be standing out in its own light. If only because, astonishingly, Indians distinguishing themselves, as left-handed batsmen, have been few and far between Australia and New Zealand! Among such left-handed willow wielders making the trip to Australia, almost all (barring Rusi Surti) disappointed from beginning to end. This means the 144-blasting blade of Sourav encounters no sharp left-handed competition during the whole range of India's plus-30 Test matches in Australia. Take the 1947-48 series of five Tests against Don Bradman's Australia. India had, in that path-finding series, a genuine southpaw in Gul Mohammed. In that Gul batted, bowled and fielded left-handed. As a cover point, Gul Mohammed was, every inch, Hemu Adhikari's peer.

A stylish striker of the cricket ball, Gul Mohammad, initially, went in one-down under Lala Amarnath's leadership. But, soon, had to be dropped down the order — against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. Not to mention Australia's utility bowler number one — the left-handed Bill Johnston. Gul Mohammad's southpaw scores in that 1947-48 series speak for themselves — 0 & 13 in the Brisbane Test; 29 & 5 in the Sydney Test; 12 & 28 in the Melbourne Test; 4 & 34 in the Adelaide Test; 1 & 4 in the (return) Melbourne Test.

V. V. S. Laxman's (75) showed shades of that pedigree 167 in the January 2000 Sydney Test. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Alongside Ajit Wadekar, therefore (during the1967-68 tour of Australia), I must pinpoint Rusi Surti as having been the stand-out left-hand bat for India. In the face of the fact that Tiger Pataudi, inexplicably, did not want Rusi Surti on that tour Down Under! Wonder why, considering that Rusi Surti ranks only behind Eknath Solkar as a fielder anywhere — the total athlete who could fix any catch with flair and anticipation. Plus Rusi Surti was most useful to Tiger (in that 1967-68 Test series Down Under) doubling as a left-arm medium-pacer and an orthodox left-arm spinner. A cricketer any captain would give his right arm to have in the team. Yet, to such a versatile left-hander, Tiger Pataudi never really warmed.

Rusi Surti still gave that 1967-68 tour, Down Under, all he had, his scores in the five Tests contributing meaningfully to any show Tiger Pataudi's India put up. This southpaw's scores then: 70 & 53 in the Adelaide Test; 30 & 43 in the Melbourne Test; 52 & 64 in the Brisbane Test; 29 & 26 in the Sydney Test. No wonder Rusi Surti, from hereon, chose to be a fire-fighter in his career as, still feeling neglected, he opted to settle down in Australia. Indeed, in terms of consistency, Rusi Surti has yet to be rivalled by any Indian left-handed bat in Australia. All those runs in five Tests, never forget, while performing, side by side, meaningfully with the ball and, of course, being stand-out in the field.

Rusi Surti was not exactly a specialist left-handed bat. As for the rest of the Indian left-handers touring Australia, they turn out to be but part-time batsmen! Thus do we have Karsan Ghavri, during the 1977-78 tour of the Packer-ravaged Australia, coming up (in the three matches he played under Bishan Singh Bedi) with 6 & 6 in the Melbourne Test; with (at No. 8) the Jack Fingleton-acclaimed 64 in the Sydney Test; plus 3 & 23 in the Adelaide Test. Karsan Ghavri returned to Australia in 1980-81, under Sunil Gavaskar, for southpaw scores of 7 & 21 in the Sydney Test; 3 & 7 not out in the Adelaide Test; 0 & 11 not out in the Melbourne Test. Maybe Karsan Ghavri never could rate as a specialist left-hand bat. But, when he did get going, Karsan Ghavri looked as good as Ajit Wadekar in the middle! That is why I detail his Test scores in Australia at a time when there was a woeful paucity of quality left-handed bats in India.

Believe it or not, there was not one left-handed bat on view, in the Indian team taking the field, through a total of 8 Tests during the 1985-86 and 1992-93 tours of Australia! So that we have to turn to our very first visit to Australia to zero in on a couple of specialist left-handed batsmen. Partisans in Bombay then considered Khandu Rangnekar to be Gul Mohammad's left-handed batting equal in every respect.

At cover point, Khandu was certainly on a Gul par. Gul Mohammad was certainly the more lively bowler with the new ball, where Khandu Rangnekar merely opened the attack (for Bombay Customs) with his gentle medium.

As a specialist left-handed batsman in Australia, however, Khandu Rangnekar was an even greater flop than was Gul Mohammad. Khandu Rangnekar here played but three Tests compared to Gul Mohammad's five. What a stroke-maker like him was doing, batting at Nos. 8, 9 & 10, only skipper Lala Amarnath could have explained. Predictably, therefore, Khandu Rangnekar disappointed with 1 & 0 in the Brisbane Test; 6 & 18 in the Melbourne Test; 8 & 0 in the Adelaide Test.

So there you are, Sourav Ganguly belongs to a rather rare native breed, in Australia, as far as Indian Test left-handers go. Sourav's breeding was manifest in the aura he brought to orchestrating that 144 in the Brisbane Test.

If only Sourav could bat in the same Brisbane idiom for the most part now, he would be leaving his Hero Honda mark, in Australia, as indubitably India's topmost left-handed batsman to tour Down Under.